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When Is A Team Not A Team?

An old English riddle asks, “When is a door not a door?”


“When it’s ajar.”


Most of us don’t think of a door that’s partly open as ajar, unless we’re particularly erudite, though the conundrum does illustrate to a certain extent our misunderstanding of teams. So great is it that before we ask what they are, we have to explain what they’re not.


Not just a group

A team isn’t a team when it’s a group, or more accurately, when it’s only a group.

All teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. Leaders and managers alike have forgotten that, or perhaps never knew the difference.

A group is easily defined. It’s a collection of things or people. They might share similar characteristics, be completely different in every way, or somewhere in-between.

A group of people might consist of all men, all women, all boys, all girls, or some combination thereof. They could include all races and ethnic groups, only one, or a mixture, both “pure” and mixed. They could have a variety of different eye and hair colours, not to mention styles. Stature and body type would further differentiate them, as would age. In fact, there are probably more possible combinations than you can think of. And that’s just the members of it. None of those things take into account vocation, leadership or management styles, or anything else in life.


When is a team actually a team?

A team, on the other hand, is quite different.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there is no agreed upon definition, though the consensus seems to be along the lines of a shared purpose with the smallest number of people possible.


Shared purpose

Most people have no problem with the idea of a shared purpose. “Shared” means that everyone knows about it, believes in and is committed to it.

“Purpose”, on the other hand, suggests action - action that they as a group deliberately take together to achieve some end.



The problems begin when leaders refer to larger numbers of people as a team. It simply doesn’t work. Remember, smallest is best. That could mean two, or six, or 12. It doesn’t mean two dozen.

Five to seven, in fact, is reckoned to be the ideal team size, with few exceptions. Fifteen to 20 is really pushing it, because even if they have a shared purpose, groups of that size and more will automatically fragment into smaller units. It’s then that you have several smaller teams under the umbrella of a larger one.

What would be the point of that? Why not just recognize the smaller ones as teams in their own right?

When you try to put them all under one team, then you’re more likely to get secondary purposes which actually conflict with one another. And that’s because each team sees itself as a separate unit and in a competition with the others.


You’ll hear politicians, military leaders or NHS managers, for instance, refer to the hundreds or thousands under them as their “team.” It has a sort of aggrandizing and romantic ring to it, especially to those who “own” them. Much of the time, however, the people in the group have no sense that they’re on a team. For one thing, they haven’t met everyone else. They don’t know one another at all. If they’re going to work together as a team, then at the very least, they’ll have developed a relationship with them all first.

Not only that, but they don’t know their leaders either. In fact, it’s quite likely that they’ve never even met them apart from a cursory handshake that occurred by happenstance. Team members, on the other hand, know their team leaders. There’s a professional intimacy in the relationship.

And that’s not all. Leaders of groups, especially large groups, tend to intimidate the people who are in it. These people often seem larger than life, and much of that is because of their social distance from those in their group. Many of those group members would be afraid to darken the doorway of their “leader’s” office, and their supervisors would discourage them from ever doing so.

It’s worth noting, too, that team “leaders” who intimidate aren’t leading. True leaders have willing followers. Willing followers are people who want to be around those who they follow.

Would you follow someone willingly if they intimidated you? Given a choice, it’s more than likely that you’d run the other way. Why would anyone deliberately want to associate with someone whose presence terrified them?


Nothing magical

There’s nothing magical about a team, even though every organization in the developed world seems to believe that there is.

When they’re formed for the right reasons and under the right circumstances, then they can accomplish a lot. They can do things that looser groups are unable to do; but that doesn’t mean that they’re always appropriate. Just as it’s a mistake to assume that a group is a team, so it’s also an error of judgement to assume that all groups should be teams.


Teams must communicate

Teams - that is, groups that are intended to work together in a unified way - must keep each member abreast of what everyone else is doing, otherwise there are likely to be gaps in their efforts or duplication of work.

Individuals don’t have to think about that.


Individuals are faster and more efficient

Sometimes the most effective way to manage people is as a group of individuals who report to a single supervisor. That doesn’t make them a team, by the way. A group of individuals working with one supervisor is faster and more efficient. The tasks for them are more clearly defined because they only have to apply to one person. Not only that, but these people work alone. In so doing, they accomplish more in less time because they don’t have to communicate with anyone else.

Another thing that few leaders and managers consider is that many people do their best work when they’re left alone. This may be another reason why teams aren’t as quick or efficient as solo workers. Those whose jobs require immense concentration dislike breaking up those periods in order to discuss things with others. Although there is a time for that, a great deal of what they do is solo work. It can be during those times when they get the breakthroughs they’re working toward.

If people who do their best work do it when they’re alone and prefer it that way, are suddenly thrust onto a “team,” then it means that you won’t be able to get your best from them. Instead, you’ll handicap their efforts. And so rather than create teams because everyone else has them, you must determine if having them at all will actually be more effective as a result.


Why teams are successful

Teams are successful, not just because they have a shared purpose, or even because they are the right size. They tend to work well because the members like one another, and they like one another enough to want to spend time together. They know their leader well and trust that person. Their goals are either in line with (preferable) or subordinated to the mission of the team, and they put forth whatever effort is necessary to make sure that it’s achieved.


Dysfunctional teams

Teams become dysfunctional - i.e. they function like groups - when they don’t share the purpose of others, when they distrust one another or the leader, when there are too many of them, and when they’re unwilling to suborn their personal interests to its mission.

This is easily done.

For instance, some management consultants will give up the relative autonomy of self-employment to join a large consulting firm so that they can work on larger projects. In order for a consulting team to be effective, however, they must commit to work together. Personal interests may be served in a tangential way, but they are not the primary concern, and those who attempt to make them so will quickly get booted from the team.

In dysfunctional teams, team leaders often forget their purpose, which is to keep everyone on track; not to lord some kind of authority over them.



There’s another thing, however, which can reveal the group mindset within a so-called team, and that’s conflict.

True teams establish norms. Norms are agreed upon standards for conduct. They spell out what is considered to be expected or acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Although they dislike conflict, they have agreed together on the procedures for dealing with it and follow them as the need arises.

Groups don’t do this. There may be unofficial “norms” that certain smaller groups within the larger group follow, but they’re not sanctioned by the unit managers. In other words, there are no formal procedures that the group as a whole follows to resolve conflict. Instead, the manager in charge decides what is expected, and what’s not acceptable.

Groups are more uncomfortable with conflict not only because of the lack of norms, but also because they don’t see themselves as a team. In other words, they see no reason to function like one. A team, if nothing else, must see itself as such. Just because a leader or a manager refers to them in that way, however, doesn’t make it so.

A group that sees itself as a team always has the team’s objectives in mind; but a group sees itself as having a variety of mixed goals. They aren’t working towards a common end unless they happen to find someone who shares theirs.

Groups also avoid conflict resolution because it’s easier to walk away from it than it is to deal with it. Teams know that they must, but groups can’t be bothered.


Teams are strongest when they have diverse styles and opinions, but are committed to working towards a common end. That common end supersedes individual goals, but is at is strongest when they align with those of the team.

There are appropriate circumstances for teams and for groups, but you should never assume that a group should be a team or that it is just because you say it is. Like anything else, you have to decide what outcome you want first, and then use the organisational form that best supports it. Sometimes it will be teams, and on other occasions, groups.

Sometimes you need the coordinated efforts of a team to accomplish what you need to do, thought at other times it’ll much more effective and efficient for people to work by themselves. Indeed, most meaningful research is done this way.

Although it destroys the mnemonic, you must accept and recognize that there are times when “Together Everyone Achieves Less.”


Why have a team?

It begs the question, “Why?”

Why do you think that people will achieve more if they’re together? Is it because “many hands make light work?”

What about “too many cooks spoil the stew?”

There has to be more than just a shared purpose. There also has to be a shared commitment; commitment to each other, as well as to the project.

Before you form another team, ask yourself, “Why?”

If you decide to form one anyway, then ask yourself “What is a team? How do I expect this group of people to function differently from a group? Why is this group a team, and another group isn’t? What distinguishes them?”

Ask yourself if what you have really is a team, or if it’s a team in name only. For instance, how do you intend to reward the members in it? As a team, or as individuals? You can’t do both.

It’s vital to ask these questions because it will also affect how you treat the people in it, as well as the identity of everyone who’s a member.

Remember that people who are on a team need to feel that they’re on one, and it’s your job to make they do; not by telling them that they are, but by showing them.


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